{Film Review} Scream, Queen! My Nightmare on Elm Street

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No matter what, 1985’s A Nightmare on Elm Street 2: Freddy’s Revenge was always going to face some challenges. First, there is the simple fact that it’s a sequel to Wes Craven’s 1984 classic. Sequels generally have mixed critical reviews and lower box office success. By the end of its run, the film grossed$30 million, which is not bad, but a drop off from the original film’s $57 million box office haul. More notable are the risks that the film took. Freddy’s Revenge is essentially a possession story about the demon of the dream world overtaking the shy final boy Jesse (Mark Patton). The film spawned intense backlash over its not-so-subtle gay references and caused Patton to quit acting during the AIDS crisis. In the last few years, as Freddy’s Revenge has gained a following in the LGBT community, Patton has resurfaced to speak about the film, including in the documentary Scream, Queen! My Nightmare on Elm Street.  The 90-minute doc is a must see for the way that it places the legacy of Freddy’s Revenge and Patton’s career within the larger framework and historical context of  LGBT history.

Directed by Tyler Jensen and Roman Chimienti, the film begins by following Mark in the present day, as he he makes his rounds on the horror convention circuit, meetings fans and celebrating the newfound viewership of the once-maligned sequel. It’s clear from the outset that Patton has aged and that shaking hands and signing autographs is an exhilarating, yet exhausting experience. Midway through the documentary, it’s revealed that Patton battled several illnesses at once, including HIV and cancer, after he quit acting in the mid-1980s.

Patton notes several times that he wants young LGBT fans to remember their history. The impact that the AIDS crisis had on Patton and the larger community is made more real by his commentary that’s mixed with news footage from the time period. There are chilling clips of patients bone-thin, bound to a hospital bed. At one point Patton comments that he knows what it’s like to see zombies walking down the street and that’s what it was like to be part of that community in the 1980s. Furthermore, Patton’s personal experience is placed in a larger historical context, namely the impact that AIDS had on Hollywood. Actors had to take blood tests before landing a role. The paparazzi outed men and killed their careers. Fear and paranoia swept the film business.

In that sense, Freddy’s Revenge takes on greater historical significance because it came out during the height of the AIDs crisis, and at the time, Patton was not out of the closet. Its gay undertones, including an S & M scene, a gay bay dream sequence, a leather daddy gym teacher, and few more subtle references, like a board game called probe in Jesse’s closet, made publications like The Village Voice refer to it as a gay film upon its release. Even to this day, however, screenwriter David Chaskin and director Sholder deny that they wanted to make a straight-up gay horror film. Only after conversations with Patton, including in the documentary, and more recent articles about the film have the director and screenwriter changed their tone.

Mark Patton in A Nightmare on Elm Street Part 2: Freddy's Revenge (1985)

(Photo Courtesy of New Line Cinema)

Yet, the documentary also functions as a reminder that it wasn’t all that long ago that being gay and out meant losing your job. Such was the case with Patton, whose agent told him that due to Freddy’s Revenge, he’d always be cast a gay character. Additionally, the initial backlash to the film was so immense that it carried over to the internet age, and the documentary highlights some of the online gay-bashing comments that Patton had to endure.

It took time and many years, but Freddy’s Revenge finally found its audience, and one of the most endearing aspects of the documentary are interviews with young, gay fans talking about how much a character like Jesse matters to them, how they could relate to his character when they were teenagers. Furthermore, the documentary is a reminder that the horror genre has always been about Otherness, and in that regard, Freddy’s Revenge is indeed the gayest horror film ever made. My Scream Queen should cement its legacy as such and finally give Patton his justified due for the amount of work he’s done on behalf of the gay community after walking away from acting and surviving the AIDS crisis. This is an important documentary, not only for the horror community, but perhaps more importantly, for the LGBT community. It’s a reminder just how much representation matters.

{Film Review} The Room and The Horrors of Home Ownership and Child-rearing

As the Coronavirus leads to more forced and voluntarily quarantines, with businesses, restaurants, and bars shutting down, now is a good time to stream movies. If you have Shudder, I recommend checking out The Room (no, not the 2003 Tommy Wiseau flick) about a couple who moves into a house and finds a mysterious room that grants them anything they wish. The catch is that once they leave the house, anything they wished for disintegrates. The film taps into a several relevant anxieties, including confinement, male control over the reproductive process, home ownership, and the challenges of child rearing. These same anxieties are relevant in countless other horror films, perhaps most notably The Amityville Horror, but The Room’s basic premise offers a unique twist on some well-trodden ground.

Directed by Christian Volckman, the film begins when a young couple, Kate (Olga Kurylenko) and Matt (Kevin Janssens), purchase a  fixer-upper. The inside of the house is barren, with paint-flaked walls and rooms that feel drafty just by looking at them. You get a sense that the couple doesn’t have much money, and the house’s need for TLC and the all-consuming role it eventually plays is reminiscent of The Amityville Horror, namely the financial burdens that husband and wife George (James Brolin) and Kathy Lutz (Margot Kidder) face. George, at one point, complains about the house “nickle and diming” him. Meanwhile, he has to deal with toilets that spew black goo and windows that slam shut.

At least temporarily, Matt and Kate’s problems are solved when they discover a secret room in the back of the house accessed solely with a special key. They wish for fancy food, piles of cash, and whatever else their hearts desire. Temporarily, the room is a balm for their financial and relationship woes.

Yet, as the narrative unfolds, primarily within the home’s walls, you learn that the couple had two failed pregnancies and Matt wants to try again, to the point that he wills the room to create a nursery, complete with a crib and freshly painted blue walls. This infuriates Kate, who doesn’t want to go through the turmoil of trying to have another child. The power dynamic in this scene starts to shift. Initially, the couple wishes for everything together, and for a brief time, they’re happy with material goods. Yet, once Matt insists that they have another child, that’s when the relationship problems worsen. He uses the room for his own desires, without consulting his partner, and by doing so, he forces Kate to reconcile with a past she wanted to forget. In fact, the home, via the room, forces her to confront her past trauma.

Eventually, Kate wishes for a child, and lone behold, the room gives her one without the pain of pregnancy and the fear she’ll loose another baby.  The room essentially removed the man from the process. As soon as Matt sees the child, Shane, he demands that Kate get rid of the baby because they didn’t have the boy in a natural way. He wants to control the reproductive process. This scene in particular, when Matt stands over the bed, pointing  and leering at the baby, is quite powerful and poignant. Matt wants to dictate the choices that Kate makes, including the decision to essentially abort a child they didn’t have together. Matt never sees the child  as his own, while Kate increasingly becomes like a natural mother to him, even breast feeding him. It should be noted, however, that the baby initially cries all day and all night, causing the couple to bark at each other in the middle of the night about who will take care of him during the late, late hours.

Like anything else the room creates, however, Shane can’t go outside. If he does, he ages quickly, so the film features Shane as a child (Joshua Wilson) and Shane as a teenager (Francis Chapman). Raising a child only further strains Matt and Kate’s relationship, and again, there are echoes of The Amityville Horror. As George Lutz’s financial woes increase, he takes it out on the kids, especially the kids that were Kathy’s prior to their marriage. He frequently snaps at them, much like Matt, who, at one point, questions what he and Kate are going to do, since they don’t have jobs and can’t escape the house. He even calls Shane a figment and states he isn’t a real person. Like the Lutz family, Matt and Kate are trapped by home ownership, financial needs, and child rearing responsibilities.

The film also features a subplot about a killer named John Doe (John Flanders), driven mad by the room and the material goods it fed him that were intangible once he walked through the front door. Matt is increasingly faced with the potential that he or Kate will end up like John Doe, driven mad by confinement and the stress of material goods that can never really materialize once they step outside. What good is a pile of cash if you  can’t actually spend it on anything because it will turn to dust in your hands? This subplot draws another comparison to The Amityville Horror. George increasingly becomes more like Ronald DeFeo, Jr., who murdered inside the home. Matt, meanwhile, frets that increased confinement will turn him into John Doe, and as the move progresses, he becomes more and more unwound.

The sense of confinement increases in the film’s wild final act. Ultimately, the challenges of raising a kid who can’t go outside exacerbate the relationship problems already at stake, and the end scenes grow more and more surreal as Shane harnesses the room’s power to create maze-like corridors and staircases to trap Matt and Kate in the home. He especially doesn’t want Kate to leave.  Even as a teenager, he frequently refers to her as Mommy. He’ a child trapped in an older body.

The Room treads some familiar grounds within the genre, including both the horrors of raising a child and the pains of home ownership, while also exploring the effects of a man trying to control a woman’s reproductive process. None of these themes are new, but the film explores them in a creative and interesting way via the concept of a room having the power to grant wishes that evaporate once outside. It’s also a clever take on the child as a monster trope, but Shane evokes some sympathy because Matt never wanted him, since he had no say in the process. He views Shane as a monster destroying his relationship with Kate. In the time of mass quarantines and confinement, The Room feels relevant. Give it a stream.

{Film Review} The Hunt

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In a way, you have to feel bad for Universal/Blumhouse’s The Hunt. First, after two mass shootings in 2019, the film was yanked from Blumhouse’s schedule due to its supposed plot about liberal elites gunning down right-wing Americans. The right-wing stratosphere reacted to the term”deplorables” in the script, seemingly used to refer to a murdered American. Of course, the president tweeted, pointing a finger at “racist Hollywood.”  The movie finally had a theatrical release on March 13, amid the Coronavirus outbreak and the likelihood that people will avoid movie theaters. At this point, Blumhouse/Universal has decided to release the film, along with The Invisible Man, on VOD starting this Friday. At long last, more people can see the movie.

The truth is that The Hunt is not a right-wing hit piece. For the most part, it’s a bloody,  B-movie romp that skewers both sides. From the outset, it’s clear that the film is never going to take itself too seriously. In the opening minutes, a victim wakes up on an airplane, occupied by the “liberal elites.” The airplane is flying to “The Manor,” where the games are set to begin. Of course, he realizes what’s going on and tries to stop it, but he’s killed by Hilary Swank’s icy Athena, who shoves her heel into his eyeball.

From there, the narrative shifts to The Manor, where the captives are released in a field with gags locked to their mouths. They flee for safety amid a shower of bullets. Heads literally explode. Captives step on landmines. One young woman falls on a spike…twice. Just as the camera focuses on one character,  for oh, two or three minutes, making you think they’re going to be the protagonist, they’re then taken out with a grenade or bullet. Eventually, the audience is introduced to the actual protagonist Crystal (Betty Gilpin), a tough veteran who takes out the “elites” one by one, be it with bullets or some seriously impressive kickboxing movies. Crystal is the only character given any semblance of  a story, other than maybe Athena, but even so, their stories are light. In fact, that’s one of the film’s real flaws. It’s hard to relate to any of these characters. Athena and Crystal kick ass, but we hardly know anything about them. The rest of the characters are mostly fodder with some funny one-liners about gun control, climate change, and “snowflakes.”

Crystal

Crystal played by Betty Gilpin/Photo Courtesy of Universal/Blumhouse

There are plenty of movies that do political satire better. John Carpenter’s They Live is the most obvious example. That said, there is one scene in particular between Crystal and Athena that gets into a heavy debate about internet conspiracy theories and truth. It’s an impressive bit of acting and script writing that makes for a poignant scene. Additionally, the film makes it clear that we should be careful about judging others before we hear and understand their whole story. In fact, the film illustrates well just how much Americans with opposing views distrust each other.

All of that said, The Hunt is fairly hollow but fun movie that isn’t afraid to be absurd. There’s a t-shirt-wearing pig named Orwell (after Animal Farm), for heaven’s sake.The film is probably not going to change anyone’s thinking, but those who assume that they know what the movie is about should actually see it. Americans on both sides of the political aisle will find something to laugh about. The Hunt is certainly a violent movie, but there is such an over-the-top, Eli Roth-style factor to the gore that it’s outlandish. As Americans hoard TP and worry about loved ones, rightfully so, we need to laugh. A little satire is healthy.

A Rebirth of the Classic Universal Monsters?

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(Photo Courtesy of Blumhouse/Universal)

Now that Leigh Whannell’s The Invisible Man (Read my review at Signal Horizon) grossed nearly $50 million at the box office this weekend, it seems likely Universal will green-light other reboots/remakes of their classic monsters. Unlike 2017’s The Mummy, Whannell’s film was a huge success, especially when you factor in that it had a budget of only $7 million. There are several reasons why I think this project worked.

  • It was a single, self-contained story. Unlike The Mummy, The Invisible Man didn’t try to launch an entire Dark Universe. It simply focused on one main character, Cecilia Kass (Elisabeth Moss), and her abusive ex, aka The Invisible Man.
  • It updated the story. The movie resonates because it feels timely in the age of the MeToo movement and powerful men going to jail or abusing women.
  • It was actually…. scary and suspenseful. What’s more terrifying than an unrelenting ex who you can’t see? The score helped, too.
  • Moss’ performance was stellar. Enough said.

Whannell just signed a first-look deal with Universal/Blumhouse, meaning they’ll most likely have him direct other projects, which could mean other reiterations of the classic monsters. The Invisible Man contains a formula for successful reboots of other classic monsters, namely, keep the story simple. Don’t try to build some grandiose universe. Give us a monster. Give us victims.

Which monsters would you like to see hit the big screen next?

Willful Monstrosity

Willful

Women in Horror Month is winding down, but it’s not quite over yet. Before the month passes, I want to recommend Natalie Wilson’s new book Willful Monstrosity: Race and Gender in 21st Century Horror (McFarland). It’s one of the best academic books on the genre that I’ve read within the last few years. Split into four sections, zombies, vampires, witches, and women, Wilson’s text is a fine addition to contemporary horror scholarship and an analysis of how the monster has evolved into a “willful subject,” one that refuses to stay in its place and abide by society’s standards. Wilson gives a close analysis to film, television, and literature, with close readings of genre favorites like Get Out, Let the Right One In, Netflix’s “Sabrina the Teenage Witch,” “The Walking Dead,” and so much more. Though Wilson’s focus is on 21st Century horror, the entirety of her project is in conversation with horror history and the evolution of the monster.

For more info about the book, check out my reviewfor Signal Horizon.

Happy reading!

In Honor of Women in Horror Month

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Did you know that February is Women in Horror Month? 

This international, grassroots initiative was started within the last few years as a means to support and showcase the underrepresented work of women in the horror industries.

In honor of that, I put together a list of 10 films directed by women to watch through the month of February.  You can read the list over at HorrOrigins.

Most of my films are from the 2000s, but it should be noted that women-directed horror films go all the way back to 1953 and The Hitch-Hiker, directed by Ida Lupino.

 

Are there any films that you’d add to the list?